By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Three trips had been made to secure more chairs, yet still people filed into First Presbyterian Church’s social hall, content to perch on ledges or stand in doorways. On a hot October night, the room buzzed.
The Pacific Empire Chorus was giving a concert for friends and family.
If you’re blinking, wondering who the Pacific Empire Chorus is, you’re not alone. Chorus members agree, sadly, they’re one of Petaluma’s best-kept secrets.
The 56-woman chorus sings four-part, a cappella (unaccompanied) harmony. Unsure what that is? Think the Dalton Warblers in television’s “Glee,” “The Sing-Off” television competition or the new movie, “Pitch Perfect.”
The chorus is well-known nationally and internationally. Last year they placed first in their region’s mid-size chorus competition, and second overall. On Oct. 30, they’ll sing to an audience of 15,000 at the Harmony Classic Competition in Denver.
In Petaluma, chorus members were holding a dress rehearsal for their Denver performance. Everywhere you looked, confident women in eye-catching red and black sequined tunics and flowing pants were smiling, warmly greeting guests.
Vivacious Patty Pennycook, 49, is the chorus director. For 27 years she has been a member of Sweet Adelines International, an organization with more than 30,000 members. And she has known about four-part harmony most of her life, she said. “My father sang barbershop.”
Pennycook is a dynamic, positive coach, and the women respond well. She directs with voice, eyes, hands and body.
“I want you to drip joy and love,” she exhorts as they sing about drop dead gorgeous movie star George Clooney. “I don’t want to see your eyes anywhere but on me.”
This chorus is about acting as much as singing. Hands gesture, bodies sway, voices surge and swell. Pennycook’s reminder to be joyous is evident. They are the vocal equivalent of a double espresso.
Some singers drive a long way for the good sound and positive energy. Members are as far-flung as Napa, Cloverdale, Sacramento — even Carson City. “It’s fun, and we do well,” Pennycook explains. “It’s ‘Glee’ for adults.”
Members are also having fun. Take the Stevens Sisters, who also perform as a quartet. They sing, “You broke my heart in three places. Seattle, Chicago and New York City.” And “I’ve been waiting for your phone call for 18 years. You said you’d call me back someday. I wasted my youth in a telephone booth. How could you treat your only love that way?”
Sue Oaks, 63, has been with the chorus for two years. “It’s such a happy sound,” she says, “it’s just fun.”
Melany Schmitt, 49, has sung with Sweet Adelines choruses since she was 12. Like Pennycook, her father also was a barbershopper. “It keeps me happy, and healthy,” she says. “We’re a sisterhood, a sorority.”
The singing form has been around since the late 1800s, when groups of black men really did harmonize in barbershops. “The sound was addictive and entrancing,” Schmitt says. “People wanted to know how they did it.”
Sweet Adelines and the male equivalent, the Barbershop Harmony Society, are about “keeping this American art form alive.”
It’s considered endangered because choruses tend to be older, “so we’re making a concerted effort to find kids,” Schmitt says. “Our chorus ranges from 18 to members in their 80s, ut the sound crosses generations.”
Alice Forsyth, 68, laughs as she recalls her introduction to the chorus 22 years ago. “I always wanted to sing, but I was too busy. After the kids left home I decided to do some things for myself.
“I was talking with someone down at the Vets Building, and I heard this singing and clapping. I looked in and they asked, ‘Do you sing? Get up on the risers.’ They handed me the music, and I’ve been here ever since.”
What has Pacific Empire Chorus meant to her? Forsyth laughs again.
“Sanity. Joy. Friendship. Support. Escape. Travel.”
All agree that no matter how tired or sad they are at the beginning of a Wednesday night rehearsal, by the end they feel marvelous, relaxed and energetic.
Interested in learning more? Go to pacificempire.org. To follow the chorus as it competes in Denver, watch the Sweet Adelines International webcast at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at sweetadelineintl.org.